Complications with English: A Fight for Clean Power and Clean Air

Ten years ago, the Connecticut environmental community ran up against an unusual proposition: restart a defunct New Haven power plant, and clean the city’s air. It seemed a basic and obvious contradiction: More power, cleaner air? It’s with good reason that environmentalists prefer the absence of a power plant to the operation of a power plant. One tends to encourage efficiency and clean air, the other profligacy and pollution.

But ideology always stumbles on the occasional exception, and the redevelopment of English Station in 2001 proved just such an exception. It was, indeed, a power plant promising New Haven cleaner air.

The proposal for the power plant failed. Absent temperate dialog between private and public sectors, and across the divide that separates environmentalists from power plants—somewhere—the best option for the city disappeared. Vitriol rose in its stead.

It took another decade and myriad lawsuits until a serious proposal to improve New Haven’s air quality once again took to the fore, found traction, became reality. So what happened? What accounts for the failure of English Station ten years ago? What gives?

In 1992, The United Illuminating Company (UI) designated English Station, one of its oldest operating power plants, a deactivated reserve. The doors closed once and for all on a plant that had operated for more than sixty years. Soil on-site was heavily contaminated with lead and mercury. Asbestos filled the building. It sat silent, and disrepair showed in the fingerprint of cracks, the peeling paint, the windows blown through or shattered by the stonethrow of vandals.Then, in 1998, state deregulation of the power sector forced companies like UI that distributed power to divest all of their energy producing assets. UI was saddled with the toxic property of English Station and a mandate to get it off their hands. The next year, UI happily transferred ownership, along with a payment of $4.25 million, to Quinnipiac Energy, an unaffiliated private company that had formed with the exclusive intent of acquiring and recommitting English Station to power generation. Here began the saga to clean New Haven’s air by generating power.

Curt Johnson is a tall, narrow, senior attorney who has worked with Connecticut Fund for the Environment since 1993. He was one of the central forces moving against Quinnipiac Energy as it filed to reopen English Station. He recalled extensive detail of the case, and, as he did, thin notes of ambivalence played throughout his recollection. It was an ambivalence inspired by one piece of the puzzle that did not quite fit, a single extra fact that made the neat packaging and storage of this case impossible. It was the problem of Mark Mininberg.Mininberg was a principal investors in Quinnipiac Energy. He is an environmental lawyer with particular and personal expertise in the renovation and reuse of contaminated sites; he spent years repurposing military technologies for the generation of clean power in former Soviet states. And it was his initial plan for English Station that gave Curt pause.

Mininberg first took over English Station with the ambition to install new electric generators that ran on natural gas instead of oil. He wanted to recycle all of the heat generated by the boilers instead of simply shooting it out of the flue, as most power plants do. In short, Mininberg envisioned opening a power plant that gave New Haven cleaner rather than dirtier air. Quinnipiac Energy initially proposed a plant, Curt explained, “that would run on clean gas, send excess power to Simkins Paperboard across the water, and then commit thermal energy to Yale and downtown.”

At the time of Quinnipiac’s proposal, Simkins Paperboard operated a #6 oil boiler – the dirtiest kind, only legal because grandfathered in. The boiler was allowed to run until maintenance had to be performed. Because of this, Simkins was the second heaviest polluter in New Haven, excluding automobile traffic. Quinnipiac Energy promised to provide Simkins enough energy that it could take its boiler offline.  Quinnipiac was “promising a net environmental gain,” Curt said. “Connecticut Fund for the Environment, me included, was in on the deal. We were all pretty well convinced.”

“The basic premise would have worked,” insisted Mininberg, were it not for the trumpeted legal action of local environmental groups and the intransigent greed of his business partners.”

On the legal front, after reactionary argument and intervention from local citizens, Mininberg’s proposed renovation of English Station was deemed “not financially or practically feasible” for two reasons: first, it would require a second round of permits for the gas turbines, through which his business partners were too impatient to suffer; second, the agreement with Simkins was a so-called “handshake agreement” over which Quinnipiac Energy had no formal control. Despite an on-record statement by Simkins General Manager Frank Camera that “we are definitely interested” in cogeneration, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) deemed that, because Quinnipiac Energy could not physically or legally force Simkins to shut off its boiler, the entire cogeneration proposal was infeasible.

Quinnipiac Energy fractured over these roadblocks. Mininberg urged Quinnipiac to find a way forward with the gas turbines on the table. He argued that the proposal could still be good for Quinnipiac, and for all of the other stakeholders and intervenors. With their initial capital drying up, they could find outside investment. But his partners, and owners of a controlling share in the company, decided to scratch the cogeneration facility and go ahead with the easiest and cheapest solution: run the plant using the existing oil generators. Strong-arming Mininberg, the redevelopment of English Station moved forward without the clean gas boilers. The community exploded in louder, greater, stronger outrage.

Mininberg was furious. He wanted nothing to do with the new proposal, which he saw as a harmful step backwards. “I became an intervenor against the company I helped found! My forty percent interest in the company was being wasted by people who were running it into the ground. And my investment had not been inconsiderable. Where I was coming from, I wanted English Station to create a net environmental benefit. But the majority was not concerned about this.” He spoke with particular rawness as he recalled this sacrifice. “It got kind of ugly. It got very ugly. Eight years of litigation.”

Dylan Walsh

Dylan Walsh graduated from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2011 where he studied environmental communication. He is an Editor at The Solutions Journal and a freelance science/environment writer.

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